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The Old Wives' Tale

3.79 of 5 stars 3.79  ·  rating details  ·  2,185 ratings  ·  132 reviews
H. G. Wells described The Old Wives' Tale as "by far the finest long novel written in English and in the English fashion". He was, of course, speaking for his own generation, and a hundred years later the opinion may seem somewhat exaggerated. However, there is no doubt that The Old Wives' Tale is a superby novel of its kind, and it is still as readable and enjoyable as ev ...more
Paperback, 576 pages
Published May 1st 1998 by NTC/Contemporary Publishing Company (first published 1908)
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(showing 1-30 of 3,000)
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Cecily
A simple concept of parallels and contrasts in the lives of sisters, carefully told with gentle irony. It starts in 1864 when Constance and Sophia are 16 and 15 respectively and follows them to the end of their lives. Book 1 covers their teenage years together above and in a draper’s shop in a small town in the Staffordshire Potteries (central England). Book 2 is in the same location, but focuses on Constance. Book 3 is set in Paris during great political upheaval and war, and is about Sophia. I ...more
Paul
I recall intensely that The Old Wives' Tale had me weeping silently into my mug of tea on more than one occasion as I followed raptly the ordinary tedious lives of two more than a little irritating women from youth to addled toothlessness, whence are we all doomed, although, one hopes, these days, with more humane dentistry and superior bridgework. Ah, humanity! Is it ever thus? Yes, thus it was, thus it is, and thus is to be. Here is a symphony of domesticity, panopticon of disappointment, spou ...more
Janet
A testament to the power and influence of Goodreads is the discovery of this gem which otherwise would have escaped my notice.

Bennett grabbed me with the second sentence of his preface and never let go for a moment. In many ways this 5 page preface is more compelling than the actual novel. Here he relates an anecdote of sitting in a favorite cafe when an old woman comes in talking to herself and dropping her parcels. She is the subject of immediate ridicule by the two waitresses, one old enough
...more
Joselito Honestly and Brilliantly
He saw a fat, old, ridiculous, shapeless woman in a restaurant. Then he imagined her once as a vivacious young girl, perhaps pretty when she was a young woman, had some love affairs, married, brought forth children, and now she's like that, most likely alone and forgotten. For a long while he thought of writing a story about an old woman like her. When he finally got himself into writing it, he thought it would be more challenging to write about two of them, so Arnold Bennett made them sisters-- ...more
Melinda
I LOVED THIS BOOK! First published in 1908, it read like a modern-day novel - not tedious and wordy like many Victorian novels. The author painted such vivid characters, scenery and narrative that it was very easy to get swept up in the storyline. Covering a span of 50 years the story is about two sisters, Constance and Sophia Baines, following their lives from youth into old age. The book is broken down into four "books": Book 1 is about the teen-aged girls and their mother; Book 2 is a chronic ...more
C.S. Burrough
Aug 26, 2014 C.S. Burrough rated it 5 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Everyone
First published in 1908, this is considered one of Bennett's finest works. His breathtaking detail and description is something to behold.

The story begins around 1840 in the Stafforshire pottery town of Burslem, where young sisters Constance and Sophia Baines work in their parents' draper's shop. They are initially close but contrastingly different girls, Sophie the younger considered incorrigible by the more proper Constance. As they grow up the girls drift, mentally and geographically, apart.
...more
Tony
THE OLD WIVES’ TALE. (1908). Arnold Bemmett. ****.
I have a pile of books “to be read” that comprise my “guilt” pile. They are usually from the group known as classics, and have small print, and are exceedingly long. I put off reading any of them until my guilt level exceeds my capability of enduring it. That’s how I picked up this novel by Bennett. I’ve known for years that this was considered his best work, and had even broken myself into his style by reading one of shorter works first, now I’
...more
Diana
Constance and Sophia are two sisters born into the narrow but secure world of their parents' drapery business in the Potteries. The Old Wives' Tale is the story of their lives from girlhood to old age and it is a remarkable masterpiece.
The life experiences of the two are vastly different, yet in essence they end up living the same life. As products of a hard-working, respectable trading class, their values are with them for life. Bennett puts the women centre stage, and male characters are perip
...more
Sketchbook
2 sisters, 2 separate lives : "I have been through too much, I cannot stand it." Yes, we're only concerned with our paltry selves, so why do some whine, Why did this novel not mention this or that war or crisis. Why? Cos outside events never matter . In his preface Bennett notes that ordinary people are never aware of history's dramatic events.

And talented Cyril, the child of one sis : so cute, so spoiled. At 33, his "habits were industrious as ever. He seldom spoke of his plans and never of h
...more
Rob Roy
The story of two sisters moving through life to their twilight years. Each faces life's tribulations, and works her way through it, but it is in the end, where they reflect back, that the brilliance of this book comes out. What is life, what contributions and differences do we make, and can we adapt, or should we? These questions permeate the prose of Bennett. One of the better books I have ever read. Possibly, being in my 60's it really speaks to me.
Elizabeth (Alaska)
The start of this is very slow with much description. I wondered if I'd started another which would be a slog. Not a bit of it, I'm happy to report. Primarily characterization with some small plot to go with it, it is no wonder this is on both Bloom's Western Canon and Boxall's 1001 Books - and maybe other lists, too.

Bennett gives us the inspiration for his story in a preface to the edition I read, wherein he states that he frequented a certain restaurant in Paris. ... an old woman came into the
...more
Rupert Smith
I consider Arnold Bennett to be the most underrated of all English novelists, and The Old Wives’ Tale to be one of the great undiscovered (or ‘underdiscovered’) masterpieces of twentieth century literature. Bennett was despised by the Bloomsbury group, particularly Virginia Woolf, who thought him conservative and vulgar; his popularity made him a figure of envy and ridicule amongst the Modernists. Obviously he’s got much more in common with Trollope, Thackeray and Dickens than he does with Joyce ...more
John
I have finally finished this thing. So relieved. I really need to quit subjecting myself to the nauseum that is Victorian novels. Absolutely nothing happens in this book with the exception of the sections dealing with the youngest Baines daughter, Sophia.

Sophia is the only one in the family that actually lived. She left the tiny town of Bursley for, in my opinion, stupid reasons, but she left. And she lived a life worthy of talking about. Constance, the elder sister, sat around, got fat and comp
...more
Bob
With one exception, all of Arnold Bennett's fiction was published in the couple of decades following the death of Queen Victoria, yet in tone it is much more Victorian than Edwardian (certainly none of your post-Eliot modernism can be detected at all). In his stated attempt to emulate Flaubert, Zola and other French realists, he has a few startling passages (for example, an attempt to represent the pains of giving birth) that one is hard put to imagine in Elizabeth Gaskell or even the Brontes.
Fo
...more
Sarah
I enjoyed this immensly! The story tells the tale of Constance and Sophia Baines' lives from girlhood to death at the end of the 19th century. They were, perhaps, from today's point of view, not very exceptional lives - especially Constance's - but it is so well written and Bennett has such a delightful way of describing everything that you don't really notice this! His main characters have great depth, and the narratve is wonderfully tongue in cheek. My enjoyment was no doubt increased by the f ...more
Ellie
Arnold Bennett is one of the great under-read authors ever. His prose is shining-carved out of marble each word beautiful resonating off the surrounding ones. But really-his craft is so pure and every word counts. Of course, it's good his writing is so unsentimental because it keeps his stories from being unbearable sad (instead of just barely bearably painful). This is the book I would recommend people begin with if they don't know Bennett; I found it the most accessible with even a little humo ...more
Priti
The Old Wives' Tale Arnold Bennett
This book is a masterpiece of the art of story telling. Its a simple linear narrative but with amazing character study. How well Mr Bennett understood human nature! The book is interesting, amusing, sad and very touching..its excellent and highly recommended.
Missy
I found myself staying up hours past my bedtime completely lost in this book. Regardless of the time period of the story the attitudes and concerns of the characters are timeless. If you find it doesn't draw you in then I suggest you put it down and read it again when you are twenty years older. Many of the sentiments and situations may make more sense after you have lived a bit longer!
Genia Lukin
Apparently reviewers of the time called this book "honest but dull." I can't help agreeing. It was, in no more words than that, honest, but exceptionally dull. The first part, especially, was so incredibly tedious, in both its writing and its plot, that I was ready to give the book one star and chuck it.

Luckily for my sanity the next three parts actually picked up - or maybe I got used to the tedium - and became somewhat more bearable to read, putting the book in the realm of 'inoffensive'.

I th
...more
Veronica
Feb 20, 2012 Veronica rated it 4 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommended to Veronica by: Modern Library's 100 Best Novels
Two sisters, quite dissimilar, embark upon their lives and part as very young ladies and reunite as much older women. The Old Wives’ Tale was reportedly based on Bennett’s observations of an elderly woman dining alone in Paris. He believed her peculiar behavior invited ridicule and so wondered at her life as a young woman.

Set in Burslem and Paris beginning near the mid 1800′s through the turn of the century, we meet the appropriately named Baines sisters; sophisticated Sophia and constant Consta
...more
carl  theaker


A momentary self-congrats: with this novel, I finished the Modern Library top 100.
Only took me about 5 years, but I did it.

This novel was a worthy finale being quite a tome, 620 pages, and since written
in the early 1900s, was worried it might be difficult.

However it was a pleasant read, the story of the Baines family, primarily
Constance and Sophia from their teens through old age and death. Starting
around 1860, you get a look at the working class districts of England,
a view of middle class life
...more
Al
Do not be put off by the facts that a) you may not have heard of this book, b) the title is vaguely off-putting, and c) it was first published in 1908. It is a wonderful book. The best way for me to succinctly describe it is to quote from John Wain's excellent introduction to the Penguin Twentieth-Century Classics edition:
"The Old Wives' Tale has three claims to fame. It is one of the most successful attempts, if not *the* most successful, to rival in English the achievement of the French rea
...more
Daryl
In the author's own preface to the edition I read (which I read when I was about 2/3 through the book), he mentions that the public reaction to the book when first published was that it was "honest but dull, and that when it wasn't dull it had a regrettable tendency to facetiousness." Bennett doesn't dispute this idea; in fact, he says it confirms an opinion held by someone who's judgement he trusted. Though he adds that over time, the reception of the book became "less and less frigid." Not too ...more
Laura
This book is the small details in life. Two sisters - of a mercantile family - lead very different lives. One stays in Bursley her whole life. And the other one scandalously elopes with a less than honorable traveling salesman. Late in life the two sisters reunite. Sophia reflects on her leaving and returning to Bursley Square:

Her return was accepted with indifference. Her escapade of thirty years ago entirely lost its dramatic quality. Many people indeed never heard that she had run away from
...more
James
Arnold Bennett's The Old Wives' Tale is a good, but not great, novel about the lives led by two women from a small town in England. While he writes with both a high degree of realism and historical accuracy there are moments, especially in the opening chapters, that test the reader's patience. His devotion to the quotidian details of everyday life does not always rise to the level of interest, even when presented well by a master prose stylist. Our Lincoln Park Book Group discussed this novel th ...more
Simon
I set off on a cycle ride and had this book in the bag. At the end of each day I'd eat some cheese and biscuits and an apple and read a chunk of this. The first few chapters were read in Haworth, the second section, when I really began to get into the story, was read in the sunshine, by the river, at Bolton Abbey. I continued through upper Wharfedale and Wensleydale and into Westmoreland, each day getting more and more into this remarkable book. I read it at the birthplace of Robert the Bruce an ...more
Bobbie Darbyshire
The elder of two Staffordshire sisters remains in the house she was born in, while the younger elopes with a ne’er-do-well and lives through the 1870 siege of Paris before eventually returning to her roots. The story is absorbing, often funny and (despite a few annoyances) beautifully written. I’m not a fan of omniscient narrator, but in skilled hands it’s an enjoyable change from ‘show don’t tell’. A Radio 4 programme hailed ‘The Old Wives’ Tale’ as a forgotten masterpiece by a writer hugely po ...more
James Rose
I read this book because it was compared to Somerset Maughm's novels, which focus on the journey of a young protagonist from childhood into adulthood. However, this book was only comparble to Maughm in it's plot, which depicted the growth of to sisters from adolesence into old age. The characters were poorly invented and lacked substantial depth. The settings were simple and uninteresting as were the interactions between the characters.
Bonnie
A pretty quick read for a such a long book. I found the contrast of the lives of the two sisters very interesting. I love the premise of the book - that Bennett just made up stories about some old ladies he saw in a restaurant. I used to do the exact same thing with these weird guys that lived across the street from me in college. Also, I like that there are a lot of characters in this book with charming, old-timey ailments and causes of death.
Susan
I am sort of astonished that I don't recall ever hearing of this title before. It is a beautifully written, sensitive, often funny look at two very different sisters and where their choices lead them. On the way, he contrasts youth and age, provincialism and cosmopolitanism, Victorianism and modernism and the exterior life with the interior one. A lot of sweetness and compassion. Very glad to have this one put in my way!
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Enoch Arnold Bennett (always known as Arnold Bennett) was one of the most remarkable literary figures of his time, a product of the English Potteries that he made famous as the Five Towns. Yet he could hardly wait to escape his home town, and he did so by the sheer force of his ambition to succeed as an author. In his time he turned his hand to every kind of writing, but he will be remembered for ...more
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“The manner of his life was of no importance. What affected her was that he had once been young. That he had grown old, and was now dead. That was all. Youth and vigour had come to that. Youth and vigour always came to that. Everything came to that.” 2 likes
“Good clothes, when put to the test, survive a change in fortune, as a Roman arch survives the luxury of departed empire.” 0 likes
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